By Sean Horgan – The Glouchester Times
NOAA Fisheries has opened the public comment period for the proposed management rule that includes withering cuts to several groundfish species and reductions in the overall level of at-sea monitoring (ASM) coverage for the beleaguered groundfish fleet.
It seems the proposed rule, also known as Framework 55, has a little bit of something for everyone to hate. They have until close of business on April 5 to submit their comments to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Environmental groups, such as Oceana, are bitterly criticizing the projected reduction in ASM for groundfish boats to about 14 percent from about 24 percent, saying the rule will “weaken the chances of recovery for this historic fishery.”
Fishermen point to the further reductions in what they already consider minuscule catch quotas and say those reductions — combined with the absorption of the costs for ASM — could finally be the management initiative that shutters the Northeast multispecies groundfish fishery for good.
Savage quota cuts
The catch limits, set by the NOAA Fisheries for the 2016 fishing season that begins May 1, include savage cuts to the annual catch limits for gray sole (55 percent), Georges Bank cod (66 percent), northern windowpane flounder (33 percent) and Gulf of Maine yellowtail flounder (26 percent).
“We will not have a fishery as we know it anymore,” Vito Giacalone, policy director for the Northeast Seafood Coalition, said on Tuesday. “In fact, I think you can already make the case that we don’t have a fishery you can recognize now compared to any period in the past.”
On their own, the quota cuts are damaging enough, particularly as they follow sweeping Draconian cuts in the past four fishing seasons. But the most recent reductions are regarded as even more insidious by fishermen because the regulatory rationale for the cuts — stock assessment updates that continued in 2015 to show the stocks imperiled — in no way meshes with what they are seeing on the water.
“The guys that are still limping along are surviving on a few flounder even though they are seeing more gray sole, dabs and cod in the water than they can remember,” Giacalone said. “Those stocks are as strong as they’ve ever seen, yet those are the same species for which NOAA is saying their biomass is the lowest on record.”
NOAA Fisheries’ Northeast Fisheries Science Center performed stock assessment updates last year for all 20 groundfish stocks.
Those updates, the agency said, showed the stock status did not change for 15 of the 20 groundfish stocks, worsened for two stocks (Southern New England/ Mid-Atlantic yellowtail flounder and Georges Bank winter flounder) and became “more uncertain” for Georges Bank cod and Atlantic halibut.
Only one stock, Northern windowpane flounder, showed improvement, according to the results from the stock updates.
Beyond the quota cuts, the most contentious elements in Framework 55 are the changes to the ASM system for groundfish vessels. The changes include the elimination of required coverage for some sector trips with low groundfish bycatch, a modification in the statistical manner in which annual coverage levels are determined, and the ultimate reduction in ASM coverage levels.
The changes, generated in conjunction with the New England Fishery Management Council, are not being implemented just to reduce ASM coverage of the groundfish industry at a time when the industry has had to absorb the costs of the ASM coverage, Giacalone said.
“It’s really about improving the methodology from a statistical standpoint to improve the accuracy of the process by using five or six years of data and a three-year moving window,” Giacalone said. “In each of the years before, we were basically just following the noise and going on a roller-coaster ride. This is just statistically more sound.”
That is not about to mollify the environmental and conservationist organizations.
“The proposed rule is bad for the future of this fishery,” said Gib Brogan, Oceana’s fishery campaign manager. “This risky proposal shows a callous disregard for conservation and a fundamentally irresponsible management style that the fisheries of this region cannot afford. We need (NOAA Fisheries) to do its job as steward of this fishery and reject this half-baked attempt to build a cheaper monitoring option at the expense of the population.”